“The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.” So says neuropsychologist Martha in Nick Payne’s latest play, which sets out to illustrate that that organ’s greatest illusion is to make us believe that there is an “us”, an “I”, behind it all.
Payne blends real-life figures with fictitious characters. The three main plot strands concern pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey, who at postmortem in 1955 took Einstein’s brain in an attempt to find out what made the genius tick; the amnesiac patient known to medicine as H.M., who after a brain operation lived for more than 50 years in a continuous present without forming subsequent memories; and the bisexual Martha, whose secrecy about her past damages her present in 2014. He emphasises that, despite the historical presences, the play is a work of fiction, “but then, isn’t everything?”
Joe Murphy’s nimble production, which comes into London from the HighTide festival, origamis more than 20 characters into (or out of) a cast of four. Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda morph from scene to scene and sometimes from sentence to sentence; for much of the time we have to take it on faith that there is continuity and connection. Which, of course, is the point. Even Oliver Townsend’s design makes its own comment, placing the action in a gap in the middle of a cube of networked steel tubing; it’s in the irregularities where the interesting stuff takes place.
Payne collected an armful of awards a couple of years ago for Constellations, a love story set in the parallel universes of quantum theory. Incognito, with its numerous questions of mind, brain and identity, is more ambitious, more complex, more demanding on an audience . . . and more successful. Whether it is Thomas Harvey, deluding himself about the importance of his jars of grey matter; Henry, even at the age of 80 still awaiting the arrival of his long-dead wife so that they can go on their honeymoon; Martha, railing at the world which won’t behave conveniently for her; or the spectator, piecing together the mosaic of brief scenes, assembling stories and themes and forging a personal (ha) relationship with the material . . . we are all just getting by from moment to moment, working on the puzzle. And as with all the best puzzles, we are left with a sense of emotional as well as intellectual fulfilment.